(Self-appointed) Caliph: I have called you, the members of the IS National Security Council, together today in my bunker to discuss future strategy in light of the Orlando shooting in the US, the growth of right wing nationalist movements in Europe and the US, and our current situation on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Remember, our objectives are first to retain our state and second to expand it. Let’s start with the views of our military chief of staff. How are we doing?
Chief of Staff: Not well, sir. In the past year, we have lost at least a third of the territory we captured since we proclaimed our state. The Americans are part of the story. Drone strikes, Special Forces kill or capture raids, training and logistical support to the Kurds, the Syrian opposition, and the Iraqi government have enabled them to encircle our forces in many cities and take those cities back one by one. These include Ramadi, Kobane, Diyala, and Sinajr. We are encircled in Falujah and expect defeat after serious house-to-house fighting.
Caliph: That is discouraging. Let’s hear from the head of logistics. How are we doing?
Head of Logistics: Again, not well, sir. Yes, we profited enormously by capturing American made weapons from the Iraqi army, but the ammunition cannot last forever and we need spare parts (which we would have to get from the Americans, who are disinclined to supply us). Perhaps worse, our finances are a wreck. We survived through extortion, but that means we are bankrupting the people we claim to be defending, and they hate us so much that they have fled by the millions, thus limiting what we can extract from them. We still smuggle oil, and Turkey has been a big consumer, but this does not meet our daily needs. Selling antiquities helps, but we have flooded the market and prices are down. There is still a market for sex slaves, but the slaves are now so brutalized by our men that prices are going down for them too. Fortunately, we still get some funding from sympathizers in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, but again, it is not enough. Our troops, many of whom seem more interested in murder, rape, and loot than Islam as we understand it, have started to complain that they have not been paid. Some are deserting. A few have given intelligence for gold to our enemies. That intelligence helps the US pin-point our leaders and kill them with drone strikes.
Caliph: Maybe our foreign minister has some good news.
Foreign Minister: Sorry, sir, not much encouraging to say. We have no states as allies. Diplomatically, we are isolated.
Caliph: So the sky is falling? Where is our chief of intelligence? What’s the news?
Intelligence Chief: More encouraging than the rest thinks, sir.
Intelligence Chief: As you know, sir, our strategy has always depended on selling our struggle as one between Islam and the West, not to mention against the apostate Shia. Throughout Europe, there has been a backlash against refugees from Syria. The strength of the nationalist parties is increasing. In Austria, the leader of a neo-Nazi party, oddly called the Freedom Party, almost won the election. Our recent coordinated attacks in France and Belgium have raised fear and increased hatred substantially. Even in Germany, where Chancellor Merkel has sought to redeem her country from its genocidal past with generous asylum policies for refugees, the parties of the nationalist right are gaining ground.
Caliph: So how does that help us?
Intelligence Chief: Remember, sir, terrorism is political theater. We cannot defeat our adversaries among the Kurds, Syrians, and Iraqis by conventional means, so long as they are supported by the US. But we can exploit the situation to put on a media drama for all Muslims. The more the Europeans shut their borders to refugees, the more heartless they seem. The more vigilantes use violence against Muslims in European countries, the more we can say the infidels are uniting against all Muslims. If parties of the nationalist right come to power, they may discriminate against Muslims, thus fueling ever more hatred against the West.
Caliph: So how does the US figure into all this?
Intelligence Chief: Sir, agents cost a lot of money, but our mole in the Russian FSU has given us the US Democratic Party’s opposition research on the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. All the data suggest he is our last best hope.
Foreign Minister: The current administration is loath to insert US combat troops against us for fear of playing into our narrative of Islam versus the West. Whenever the Crusaders are fighting in Muslim lands, this has been a substantial boon in recruiting foreign fighters to our cause. Using local Muslim forces against us undermines our narrative. It makes this a multi-faceted civil war among Muslims over the political meaning of Islam in the modern age — not the story we wish to tell since we are a tiny fraction of all Muslims.
Intelligence Chief: Right. Said Sun Tzu, the great Chinese strategist, “the best strategy is to attack your enemy’s strategy.” The current administration is attacking our strategy. Not only has it relied on local proxies to fight us, but also it has deliberately refused to say this is a conflict with radical Islam. That precedent was set during the George W. Administration.
Caliph: I don’t get it. Why don’t they call a spade a spade?
Intelligence Chief: Sir, by our estimates, only a fraction of Muslims is actually willing to fight and die for our cause. Pew Research data shows that we have the support of less than 10% in almost all Muslim countries. So 90% of Muslims are not on our side and many are virulently opposed to us. This includes virtually all governments in Muslim nations, since expanding our caliphate is a threat to the existing regimes. If we wish to expand our base of support, we need to unite all Muslims under our control. The administration consistently refuses to help us. It suspects that, by calling this a war against radical Islam, other Muslims will see this as a war against Islam as such and unite with us, thus transforming this into a quarrel with 1.5 billion Muslims on our side. That, sir, is our best hope.
Caliph: So how can Donald Trump help us?
Intelligence Chief: Sir, he has called for a supposedly temporary ban on immigration to the US by all Muslims. To many in the US, who lump all Muslims in the same category as terrorists, this seems both tough and prudent, but to the rest of the Muslim world it looks like he sees the US as at war with all of Islam. He is playing into our strategy.
Caliph: What else have you learned about this man?
Foreign Minister: He is dividing the US from its allies, including its Muslim allies. They did not like it when he suggested a database to track Muslims and identification badges, like the yellow Star of David in Nazi Germany. It makes them fear persecution and worse. This makes them uncertain and unwilling to take risks in support of the US. The current administration’s strategy of rolling us back in Iraq and Syria depends on coordinating the efforts of multiple partners who do not get along with each other well. The more Trump divides the US from its allies, the better for us.
Intelligence Chief: Sir, Trump is a gift for us. He has called for reinstituting torture, waterboarding, and worse. He has also called for attacking the families of those suspected of terrorism. If done intentionally, such attacks would be war crimes we could use to mobilize Muslims against the West and divide the US even more from its Western allies. Remember they briefing I gave you on classic terrorist strategies? Rule number one: delegitimize you enemy by provoking him to overreact. If he carried out these policies, he would be the best recruiter for our cause we could possibly imagine.
Caliph: So is there anything we can do to help Trump get elected?
Chief of Staff: Sadly, sir, we have failed abjectly in conducting large-scale terrorist operations inside the US. Improved homeland security measures, intelligence cooperation especially, has made it extraordinarily difficult to insert agents in the US the way Al Qaeda did on 9/11. We have virtually no controllable assets in the US.
Intelligence Chief: For the record, sir, we do not have to insert agents to carry out a strategy to get Donald Trump elected president. I brought the Minister of Propaganda with me to today’s meeting to explain why.
Minister of Propaganda: As you know, sir, we have been very effective in what is called narrow-casting over the Internet. This is different from old-fashioned broadcasting. Our message is tailored to appeal to the 1% willing to fight and die for our cause. For the most part, we have asked them to come join us in our state to fight against the infidels, but we also ask them to rise up and attack “targets of opportunity” in Europe and the US. The shooter in Orlando, what’s his name, let me look at my records, a guy named Mateen, appears to have gotten our message.
Caliph: Who was this guy?
Chief of Staff: So far as I can tell, he was not one of our operatives. He was born in New York City to a family of Afghan ancestry. The family appears to have assimilated, but he has had a troubled life and appears to be confused about the different strands of Islam. The FBI investigated some wild statements he made from time to time, but with no evidence that he intended to commit a crime, it dropped its investigation. His attack on the gay night club appears to have resulted at least as much from animus against gays as support for us.
Minister of Intelligence: Western intelligence is terrified of what they call “lone wolf” actors. We do not control them, but we can incite them. Whatever his complicated mix of motives in the Orlando shooting, he pledged allegiance to us before he died, so we can take credit for his actions.
Caliph: I don’t get it. How does this help us?
Minister of Propaganda: Within hours of Mateen’s attack, Donald Trump claimed the attack proved he was right. The US is at war with radical Islam, which, again, many whose support we need might interpret to mean at war with Islam as such. Within a day, he renewed his call to prohibit Muslim immigration. He treated Muslim immigration as a Trojan horse that could destroy the United States. Golly, sir, I wish I had written his speech. It was perfect for us.
Caliph: Well, is there anything we can do to help Trump spread our message?
Intelligence Chief: Again, sir, we cannot control the lone wolves. Many might say they are devoted to us, but their actual motives are frequently mixed.
Minister of Propaganda: Thank God for the Internet! We need to step up our appeals to the lone wolves in both Europe and the US. If they were an Orlando-size attack in the US once per month until November, fear, anger, and hysteria might tip enough votes to Trump to get him elected.
Caliph: Sounds like what Americans call a Hail Mary pass to me. Do you think this will work?
Intelligence Chief: Sir, it is our best shot.
Caliph: What about the other candidate, the woman?
Foreign Minister: She was secretary of state for four years. She speaks more hawkishly than the current president at times, but we expect her to continue the same overall policies and strategies of the so-called Obama Doctrine.
Foreign Minister: The world has changed significantly since 2003 when the Crusaders invaded Iraq. The US Navy is deeply concerned about the rise of China and has long pushed the president to “pivot” toward the Pacific. The Russian bear is seeking a comeback and alarming US allies in NATO. US resources are limited. US forces cannot be strong everywhere, so they must accept risk in some regions to be strong in others. The US economy has only recently recovered from the Great Recession. Popular support for intervention in the Middle East is shaky at best. Her rival in the Democratic Party nominating process has and will do his best to compel her to focus on domestic priorities. And she is an advocate of “smart power.” She no more than the current president wants to get bogged down in another Middle East quagmire. She too prefers to use proxies to fight us. And she understands that since this is largely a struggle within Islam, those best suited to defeat us are other Muslims.
Caliph: Could we provoke her to overreact too?
Intelligence Chief: This would not be impossible, but she is less likely to do so.
Foreign Minister: She voted for the Iraq War in 2003 and shares responsibility for it. She also supported intervention in Libya, which has become a failed state where we have expanded our caliphate. Her party can barely forgive her these mistakes, and others. Sometimes, however, public opinion pushes political leaders in directions they would rather not go, so she could be more of a follower than a leader in some circumstances. But Trump claims to be a strong man. We think that to appear strong, Trump is far more likely to overreact. His self-image as a strong man is his Achilles heel.
Caliph: Okay, it looks like she would be a far more formidable adversary than her opponent. Let’s initiate OPERATION TRUMP. Do all you can to get this guy elected.
Intelligence Chief: Remember, sir, our strategy is to provoke overreactions. Our enemy has a vote. It might not cooperate with us.
Caliph: What do you mean?
Intelligence Chief: What the Americans call the establishment understands our strategy. If they double down on homeland security efforts, including disrupting our information operations on the Internet, and convince the Americans to stay cool and not succumb to bigotry, even our Hail Mary strategy is likely to fail.
**The views in this dialogue are fictional, though rooted in facts. They do not reflect the opinions of the US Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, or the United States government.